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The Power of Shabbat, the Importance of Pesach

Senator Joe Lieberman, z”l
And Shabbat

Former Senator Joe Lieberman, one of the highest-ranking Jews in American politics, a pro-Israel senator and Al Gore’s running mate (and vice-presidential candidate) in the 2000 election, passed away last week. It’s important to remember Lieberman’s unique voice within the Democratic party, which stood in sharp contrast to the opinions voiced by some party members today. However, I’d like to focus on his other very significant, non-political legacy.

The last time I met him was in New York. His book, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, had just been translated into Hebrew and he explained how much this translation meant to him.

Lieberman said that he had written a book about Shabbat because he wanted to communicate to young Jews around the world that they don’t have to give up their heritage in order to achieve the highest levels of professional success. In fact, he claimed, the opposite was true. His Sabbath observance, especially in the middle of an election campaign, only strengthened people’s admiration for him as a man of principles and integrity.

But he also wanted young Israelis to understand this too: that on Shabbat, he wasn’t “the honorable Senator,” and not even Joe, but Yosef Yisrael ben Chanan, his name when he was called up to the Torah.

In his book, Lieberman describes how listening to the Shabbat Torah reading was especially meaningful for him because he knew that he wasn’t listening to another political speech but to the words of God Himself. He writes how when the Holy Temple stood, the Jewish people would travel to Jerusalem, and that even though we don’t have a Temple today, we still have the opportunity, each and every week, to welcome the Holy Sabbath directly into our kitchens and living rooms.

Lieberman also points out that the prayer we recite at the Havdalah ceremony, after Shabbat ends, is no less important than the Kiddush we recite Friday night because of its powerful message: to make distinctions in our lives and to adjust ourselves to different times and situations.

And I think that, perhaps, this is the key sentence of his book: “When they ask me: How can you interrupt your work as senator to observe Shabbat every week? I respond: How could I manage to accomplish all the work I do as senator six days a week if I didn’t stop to keep Shabbat?”

Lieberman passed away last week at the age of 82 before he had a chance to observe another Shabbat. But we have the opportunity to do so.

 

Committed and in Love

There are books in the Torah that are more exciting than the Book of Vayikra which we began reading recently. After the Book of Bereshit, with its description of the creation of the world and the history of our patriarchs and matriarchs, followed by the book of Shemot, with its account of the dramatic events leading up to our departure from Egypt, we reach a book that primarily presents instructions regarding the sacrificial service in the Mishkan.

So why should we study Vayikra with the same passion we have for the other books? Because if you stay focused and engaged even when things are not so exciting or easy to comprehend, it demonstrates your sense of obligation to a higher value or purpose. In Vayikra, the Torah discusses matters that are not readily understandable. However, when you are fully invested in the story, you’re not just looking for entertainment, but for a chance to show your commitment and love. If something is precious and holy, you don’t leave it in the middle when a challenge arises. Instead, the difficulty becomes an opportunity to dive deeper, to investigate matters that are less glittery and popular, but which hold a special sweetness as you learn more about them.

This principle is relevant not only to Torah study, but to everything important: marriage, children’s education, the workplace. If I’m still here, no matter what, it’s a sign that I care, that I am immersed in the unfolding story and that every chapter arouses my love.

 

Shabbat in Belgium: Beseeching God’s Mercies

Regards from Belgium. An unforgettable moment unfolded before me on Shabbat evening, during an event named “Go Jewish.” Hundreds of Jews from across Europe came together and participated in a Shabbat of Unity. Following the Friday night dinner, performer Avi Miller, who had just arrived from Israel after a long stint of reserve duty on the Gaza periphery, began to sing Shabbat songs, drawing a large audience.

Earlier, during a discussion I led with students at the event, we’d explored what they perceived as their foremost challenges. The conclusion: antisemitism and assimilation, although most couldn’t decide which was worse. During the joyful moments on Shabbat, however, such concerns faded away, overshadowed by a vibrant celebration of Jewish identity. The students danced in circles, jumping exuberantly while singing “Am Israel Chai,” “Oseh Shalom Bimromav,” and “Anachnu Ma’aminim Bnei Ma’aminim.”

Avi took a line from the poignant Shabbat song, Ka Echsof, “V’hayu rachamecha…, May Your mercies spread over your holy people,” singing it slowly over and over. Joining a circle of young women from Amsterdam, I was struck by the sight of tears in the eyes of the women on both sides of me…

“What is he singing?” one asked. As I explained the lyrics’ meaning, it occurred to me: These young women may not have understood the song’s meaning, but their souls most certainly did.

 

Passover, for the First Time at Age 30

He wouldn’t let me take his picture, but he did allow me to photograph the Jewish exercise book for young children that he was holding.

At the end of my lecture, during the “Go Jewish” event for young European Jews, he introduced himself, a 30-year-old accountant from Amsterdam. Since the terrible massacre on Simchat Torah, he’d decided to learn more about his Judaism, and not having any formal educational framework, he decided to learn from this children’s book. Now, he’s up to the chapter on Passover, and for the first time is learning the basic words associated with the holiday: Pesach, matzah, maror. He wants to be able to read from the Haggadah. If only we were so excited by our Passover preparations!

I told him that one of our greatest sages, Rabbi Akiva, had likewise begun studying the Torah at the age of 40. He learned like a small child, starting from the letter aleph and then the letter bet, and so on. This encounter made me wonder what other hidden things are going on now in the world, without our knowledge. On Simchat Torah, he knew next to nothing about his heritage and his people; and now, on Passover, this 30-year-old Jewish accountant from Holland will be going for the first time from slavery to freedom.

* Translated by Yehoshua Siskin, Janine Muller Sherr

Want to read more by Sivan Rahav Meir? Google The Daily Thought or visit sivanrahavmeir.com


Sivan Rahav Meir is a primetime news anchor on Israeli television with a regular column in Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest newspaper, and a weekly radio show on Galei Tzahal (Army Radio). She has a tremendous following on social media for her insights into Jewish life and tradition. Her lectures on the weekly Torah portion are attended by hundreds, and the live broadcast attracts hundreds of thousands more viewers across the globe. She was recognized by Globes newspaper as the country’s most popular female media figure and by the Jerusalem Post as one of the 50 most influential Jews worldwide. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband Yedidya and their five children.

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